One of the most important higher order skills we can develop is the use of imagination. We do this with mirror neurons. These are connected to all the major parts of the brain so they can do almost anything that we can really do, but just imagining it. If we want to imagine what we think will happen in the future, we create a simulation in our mirror neurons and run the model forward to see what happens. This can happen with regard to our environment, or we can imagine ourselves physically doing something and seeing what happens. Without really doing it.
If we want to understand what other people are thinking or doing, we create a simulation in our mirror neurons of what we think they are thinking and doing, and run the model forward to see what conclusions they might draw. This is good for negotiating, arguing, and understanding people in social situations. When we lie, we create the alternative reality in our mirror neurons and save it so we don’t forget it and get caught in the lie. All of these are really important when dealing with other people.
So a new research paradigm looks at people who read fiction. It turns out that even though we usually read alone, it is very helpful in the development of social skills. Because it does all of the above. It forces us to imagine an alternative world, a completely different person with different objectives, values, and knowledge. We don’t just run a model forward, but we have hundreds of pages and an entire story to go through. And since we don’t usually read the whole book in one sitting, we have to store it for later several times. Reading fiction makes you better at understanding other peoples’ points of view, more open to new situations, and actually better able to change yourself if you want to. It helps you develop your mirror neurons.
One surprising (at least to me) finding was that people who read fiction are better able to read and interpret expressions and emotions on real faces. I guess when we read about someone experiencing an emotion, we imagine their expression in our mirror neurons so we get lots of practice.